THE idea for a free speech trade union was born at a conference for ‘cancelled’ academics in Oxford last year. It was organised by Nigel Biggar, Regius Professor of moral and pastoral philosophy at Oxford, who was targeted by an outrage mob in 2017 after writing an article for the Times entitled ‘Don’t feel guilty about our colonial past’. Because Nigel was bold enough to defend Bruce Gilley, a conservative political science professor at Portland State University, who had made the case for colonialism in an academic journal called Third World Quarterly, he became the victim of a witch-hunt. Colleagues stopped collaborating with him, open letters were circulated calling for his academic work to be de-funded and a Cambridge lecturer accused him of being a ‘white supremacist’. Needless to say, Professor Gilley had it much worse. The editors of Third World Quarterly received death threats from enraged members of the woke Left and withdrew the article, although it was later republished by the National Association of Scholars.
Bruce Gilley was at Nigel’s conference, as was Bret Weinstein, who was chased off the Evergreen State College campus in Washington state by baseball-bat wielding thugs, and Amy Wax, who was relieved of some of her teaching duties at the University of Pennsylvania Law School after she had the temerity to co-author an article for the Philadelphia Inquirer defending the bourgeois virtues. There were others, too.
Listening to their stories convinced me the time had come to take a stand. What was needed was a trade union-like organisation that stood up for the speech rights of its members. The idea was simple: everyone who values intellectual freedom should speak with one voice so if the mob tries to pick one of us off, we can unite in his or her defence. The enemies of free speech hunt in packs; its defenders need to band together too.
I also had a personal motive for setting up an organisation along these lines. I was appointed to a government job in 2018 by Theresa May and the offence archaeologists immediately set about trying to discredit me, sifting through everything I’d said or written dating back to 1987 in an attempt to prove I was an unfit person for the job. It was a textbook mobbing and by the end of it I hadn’t just lost the government role, but four other positions, too, including my full-time job running an education charity. I wrote about that experience for Quillette, the Australian online magazine where I’m an associate editor. Having been targeted for cancellation myself, I wanted to create an institution that could help other people in the same boat.
In 2009, I wanted to set up Britain’s first free school and to get the ball rolling I wrote a piece for the Observer setting out my plans and inviting people to contact me if they wanted to help. About 150 did so, and out of that group a steering committee emerged. A year later, we became the first group to be given the go-ahead by Michael Gove to set up a free school, and a year after that we threw open its doors. It’s now one of the most successful schools in the country.
That approach had served me well, so ten years later I wrote another piece in Quillette, running the idea for a free speech trade union up the flagpole and inviting people to get in touch. Within 24 hours, I’d received close to 500 emails from people saying, ‘Great idea. How can I help?’ From that pool, I assembled a group of collaborators and, six months later, the Free Speech Union (FSU) was born. You can see the website here and a list of the other people involved here. Nigel Biggar is one of the directors, as is Douglas Murray.
At first I thought full membership should be restricted to those that make a living through the expression of ideas – academics, intellectuals, columnists, pundits, novelists, playwrights, poets, comedians, etc. But when I thought about it some more, that didn’t seem right. After all, it’s not as if the enemies of free speech limit their attacks to people in those professions. Last year in the UK, a disabled grandfather who worked as a check-out clerk at Asda was fired for posting a clip from a Billy Connolly concert on Facebook in which the outspoken Scottish comedian attacked religion. It was deemed ‘islamophobic’ by one of his woke colleagues and he was duly escorted from the building carrying the contents of his locker in a see-through plastic bag. I decided anyone can join the FSU if they think their speech rights are at risk. (Incidentally, we have a discount rate or students, pensioners, veterans on disability benefit and those who live outside the UK.)
I should point out that the FSU isn’t just for male, pale and stale conservatives like me. Let’s not forget, liberals get cancelled too. Bret Weinstein is a case in point. His sin was to refuse to absent himself from Evergreen’s campus on a ‘day of absence’ in which all white people were expected to stay at home for 24 hours. He describes himself as a ‘democratic socialist’ and is still, to this day, a supporter of Bernie Sanders. But because he objected to people being asked to remove themselves from their workplace because of their skin colour, he was deemed a ‘racist’ and ended up parting company with Evergreen.
Old-fashioned feminists are also being cancelled. At the University of Oxford, Selina Todd, professor of modern history, has to be accompanied around campus by a security guard because she has challenged some of the orthodoxies of the Trans Taliban – and she was no-platformed at a feminist conference on Saturday at the behest of trans activists. The Free Speech Union has submitted a formal letter of complaint to the head of Exeter College, Oxford, where the conference took place.
What will the FSU do if the mob comes after one of its members? I think there are a number of possibilities:
- If you find yourself being targeted by a digital outrage mob on social media for having exercised your legal right to free speech, we will mobilise an army of supporters.
- If a petition is launched calling for you to be fired when you’ve done nothing other than exercise your legal right to free speech, we’ll organise a counter-petition.
- If you’re no-platformed by a university, we’ll encourage you to go to law and organise a crowdfunding campaign to pay your costs.
- If newspaper columnists and broadcasting pundits start attacking you for dissenting from orthodox views and opinions, we could get our allies in the media to come to your defence.
- If you’re punished by your employer because you’ve exercised your lawful right to free speech, we’ll do our best to provide you with legal assistance.
Please check out our website. We also have a Twitter account, a Facebook page and a YouTube channel. It’s early days, but my hunch is we’re going to attract a lot of members. Free speech is the bedrock on which all our other freedoms rest, yet it is currently in greater peril than at any time since the Second World War. If we’re going to defend it, we need to organise. (And we also need money, so feel free to donate!)